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Friday, May 11, 2012
Powerful ad celebrates Olympians' mothers

By Abigail Lorge

When you logged onto Facebook for the umpteenth time this week, you may have seen, among photos of your co-worker's cousin's wedding and countless shares of the "Saturday Night Live" Mother's Day commercial spoof, some posts about this video (also posted above), which has already been viewed more than 3 million times in the U.S. The gripping two-minute film, the centerpiece of Procter & Gamble's "Thank you, Mom" campaign, interweaves the early life stories of four aspiring Olympians growing up concurrently in four different corners of the globe.

The universal thread that runs through each of the narratives is the omnipresent nurturing mother who cooks, launders, shepherds, chauffeurs, ankle-wraps, exhorts, comforts and -- as the music crescendos -- celebrates her child's Olympic triumph through tears of joy and pride. It's a compelling piece of filmmaking, and one with the power to render even the most stoic of us a little misty, as if we were watching our own daughter nail the most important beam routine of her life.

The genesis of the project was P&G's desire, as an International Olympic Committee partner and a sponsor of Team USA, to unify all its brands around a singular Games-focused message.

"We approached [advertising agency] Wieden + Kennedy and said, 'Give us a creative idea that links our purpose, which is touching and improving lives, with the Olympic movement,'" said Janet Fletcher, the associate marketing director for P&G's Olympics program. "What they found was that while we're not in the business of sports apparel or equipment or athletes, we do support moms across our portfolio of brands. So moms became the connection that linked P&G and our involvement with the Olympics."

Once that connection was established, the creative team developed the concept, which was to tell the stories of four athletes simultaneously, from morning until night and from early childhood until athletic prime. The choice of protagonists -- a female gymnast in Los Angeles, a male sprinter in London, a male volleyball player in Rio de Janeiro and a female swimmer in Beijing -- reflected the team's desire to imbue the spot with a relevant Olympic feel, to resonate with mothers from different cultures and to showcase "cinematically interesting" locales, said Karl Lieberman, the piece's creative director.

"The way someone raises her child in Los Angeles looks a lot different, on the surface, than how someone might do it in Beijing," said Lieberman. "But even though these moms all around the world are so different, they actually have much in common. We wanted to create a commercial that really celebrated those commonalities."

In a somewhat ambitious move, Wieden + Kennedy approached Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose credits include "21 Grams" and "Babel," about directing the commercial. "We didn't know if he would take our call," Lieberman admitted.

Gonzalez did listen, but he wasn't sold on the project until his wife, Maria Eladia -- the mother of their two children -- took a look at the script. "This is a story that must be told," she said to Gonzalez. "You have to do it."

Persuaded by his wife's passion, Gonzalez signed on as director -- and brought with him a commitment to authenticity. Hence, while all four athletes' journeys culminate in Olympic victory, the journeys themselves look very different. The mother of the Chinese swimmer waves goodbye to her daughter, who is ostensibly departing for a centralized training center, and years later watches her Olympic victory on television from afar. The mother of the American gymnast, by contrast, is with her daughter at every turn and tumble, and has a front-row seat in the Olympic arena.

"We worked very closely with our offices in these regions to make sure we were telling the most relevant and true story of what moms do there," said Eric Gabrielson, global account director at Wieden + Kennedy. "But there is a universality and an emotion to all of these stories, which make it a pretty compelling piece."

For each of the four stories, the oldest iteration of the athlete was portrayed by an actual 2016 Olympic hopeful in his or her sport. The production team at each location then cast actors who looked like they could plausibly be a younger version of the mature athlete. The spot features 16 principal players in all -- a mother and three versions of her child for each story. The team shot for only two days at each location, which is "pretty insane," said Lieberman. "You have to cover basically the entire story of a person's life in two days."

Beyond the logistical difficulties, another challenge of the project was representing mundane tasks like wash, rinse, repeat in a visually appealing way. "I wish I could say, 'Of course, it's easy to make laundry look amazing!'" joked Lieberman. "But at the end of the day, we wanted it to feel real and evoke a sense of, Oh yeah, I forgot all the work that goes into raising a kid. We wanted it to feel fast and routine."

The result is a moving and powerful piece. The full-length ad, 30- and 60-second versions of which are currently running on broadcast television, has been heralded on social media by athletes (like beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh and swimmer Ryan Lochte) and their mothers (like Gail Sacramone, mother of Olympic gymnast Alicia). But the spot also moves the mere mortals among us who, even if we never played sports at a high level, recognize a familiar love and sacrifice in the mothers we see on screen.

"We don't set out to make spots that make people cry," said Lieberman. "We just wanted to tell this epic, awesome story."

They did. Watch it. And then log off Facebook and go call your mother.